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What LGBTQ people in the South say life is like for them

The LGBTQ Institute’s inaugural Southern Survey gives an insight into the lives of people living in places where government policies are often hostile toward them.

What LGBTQ people in the South say life is like for them
[Source Photo: Sara Rampazzo/Unsplash]

A huge proportion of the country’s LGBTQ adults live in the South. So do lots and lots of hate groups. That sad irony isn’t lost on Ryan Roemerman, the executive director of the LGBTQ Institute at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. “We have some of the most LGBTQ populated areas, yet we’re under attack most often,” he says.

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As Roemerman sees it, such attacks happen two ways: through discriminatory anti–LGBTQ state legislation preventing marriage and workplace equality, and also through physical intimidation and assault. Part of the issue is that there’s been little research about who is being affected, how, and the ways they’d like people, companies, and legislators to better support them.

That changes this month, as the LGBTQ Institute releases its inaugural Southern Survey of more than 6,500 residents across 14 states. The data was collected in partnership with researchers at Georgia State University, who coordinated with 146 nonprofits throughout the region. “Our mission is to connect academics and advocates to advance LGBTQ equity through research and education focused on the American South,” Roemerman says.

The effort works a lot like a highly detailed census for gay Southern life. It will inform, and hopefully inspire, more funding for three main areas of concern: education and employment, public health and wellness, and criminal justice and safety. By the numbers, at least 30% of the country’s adult LGBTQ population resides in this region, but they receive a per-person average of just 4% of available cause money.

As the report notes, there’s been at least one large generational shift: Younger respondents appear more self-aware and open about their sexual orientation and gender identity at an earlier age than older folks have been in the past. At the same time, discrimination remains rampant: More than 25% of all respondents report having been the target of jokes and slurs within the last years. Other forms of bigotry include being rejected by a friend or family member (17%), feeling unwelcome at a place of worship (14%), and receiving poor service at a restaurant or other kind of business because of their sexual orientation (13%). In many cases, those rates are nearly twice as high among transgender people.

Another troubling trend is the role that sexuality and race continue to play in many communities. For instance, 77% of black lesbian, gay, or bisexual respondents report having been threatened or physically attacked at some point in their life, the report notes. “There’s a disproportion amount of folks who are being harassed because of their gender identity and also the interplay between your race and ethnicity as well as your gender identity,” adds Roemerman. Equally disturbing: 33% of transgender people report some discrimination when trying to access health care, with nearly half of those just deciding to avoid treatment.

On the upside, 93% of those surveyed report being registered to vote and voting in the last election, even if some recent political movements by allies in other regions haven’t done much to improve life for them.

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Roemerman points to the “No Gay, No Way” campaign against Amazon locating its new HQ2 expansion in a state that didn’t support marriage, housing, or workplace equity. That effort was really only half-successful: Earlier this week Amazon announced it would be adding operations in New York, though it is also adding another office in Virginia, and more operations in Tennessee.

But people living in the South might actually consider that something of a victory. According to the survey, they overwhelmingly want to see companies stay in their states and continue fighting for rights and equity while providing jobs, instead of avoiding the area or relocating. “I mentioned earlier, we are under attack most often,” he adds. “We are on the receiving end of a lot of these, these anti–LGBT pieces of legislation. We definitely want to make sure that the companies that are in the South are willing to stay and support us, not flee and leave. For the folks who are creating these kinds of campaigns, you wonder whether or not they really talked to people in the South.”

Either way, Southern companies can’t really afford not to take a stand anymore: More than 70% or respondents are willing to support companies with values that support the LGBTQ community, while about 75% will boycott those opposed.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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